Thursday, December 06, 2007

Jasper Hill in the morning and Twig Farm in the afternoon


Sunday, 8am

Mrs. Harbison got up bright and early and made me waffles with real, local maple syrup. I love staying at B&B's. Ann Harbison made me feel like I was having breakfast at Grandma's house. Breakfast was served on china and she uses her silver. It made me seem like an honored guest. Well fortified, I scraped the heavy ice off of the windows of the car and drove up the road to Jasper Hill Farm

Mateo invited me to work with Julie making/ladling the Constant Bliss that Prin prepared the night before. I entered the cheese room and found Julie hard at work. There was a stack of 5 gallon buckets three deep on a low table. Molds were set across a draining table and Julie was ladling the curd into the molds. She'd got to work at 5:30. I washed up and joined her. We chatted and ladled, and ladled and ladled. Constant Bliss takes a long time make and get into the molds. Like all of the cheeses of Jasper Hill Farm it is made from raw cow's milk and therefore must age at least 60 days. This being a fairly small cheese, it tends to ripen quickly, so great care must be used in its preparation in order for it to ripen on time. If it ripens, in less than 60 days, it will be too fragile to ship and too ripe to sell. After two hours we were still going strong. I was keeping an eye on the weather as a storm was supposed to blow in at some point on Sunday.

(Photo: Julie and Constant Bliss)

While we were working on the Constant Bliss, Andy Kehler popped his head in to say hello. He was spending the morning in the cellar attending to the daily tasks downstairs. He also had cheese to salt and lower into the aging cellars. We talked for a few minutes and he was off, trying to track down his brother and the rest of the family. Sunday is Mateo's day off.

Around 11:00 I said goodbye to Julie and the Kehlers and hit the road. I had another date with another cheesemaker and I had to go pick up my stuff from Mrs. Harbison's house. I had some shopping to do, as well! I stopped by Willie's Store, the general store in Greensboro and picked up some local maple syrup. How can you come to Vermont and NOT have maple syrup? It was quite busy when I stopped by. People were stocking up on supplies while there was a break in the weather, I guess.

After stocking up on souvenirs from Vermont, I took a quick detour and saw Caspian Lake. As Mateo said, "It's why we're all here." The lake attracts the big crowds in the summer time, drawing families from all over who want a vacation in the mountains of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. It is a pretty lake, dotted with large, mostly empty homes around the shoreline. I see several loons, floating on the surface of the chilly water offshore. There is a layer of ice that extends out for about fifty feet. I could see the draw of this place, even in the winter.

The drive south was much nicer than the drive north. The roads were clear, there was very little traffic and I got to see some pretty amazing mountains, rivers, waterfalls, covered bridges and picturesque villages. I passed Ben and Jerry's ice cream factory. I didn't stop. I've got to save that for another trip. The Vermont landscape can be summed up easily. It is PRETTY.

(photo: Twig Farm)

I drove to Burlington and headed south for about 40 miles, past Middlebury to a farm south of West Cornwall. Like Jasper Hill Farm, Twig Farm is also farther down the road, beyond where the pavement ends. I turn into their driveway and see new-ish barn looming ahead. Beyond that is a house. Both are painted mossy green. I park and get out. I am greeted by Michael Lee, and his two year old son, Carter. They're putting covers over the outside goat feeders. The goats are not around at the moment, they're wondering around some other part of the farm. It is cloudy and cold. Snow is threatening to fall. A few stray flakes hit me. The temperature has barely broken 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Michael is the cheesemaker at Twig Farm. He is also the herdsman. His wife Emily Sunderman is also involved in the business, handling the marketing side of things. We move away from the house as Michael and Carter take me for a walk around the farm, looking for the goats. We walk amongst the bare trees, the ground is littered with dry, brown leaves, rocky outcroppings of slate and shale, as well as twigs (thus the name of the farm.) We walked through the wooded pasture looking for the free wandering goats. This time of year the goats are allowed to browse on a lot of the pasture as most things are dormant. Michael explains, "We let them browse on anything they can find. They really like the maple trees. They've girdled a few of them. The maple makes their milk taste incredible. Maple trees don't stand a chance with these goats"

(photo: goats a'comin')

As we pass amongst the trees, we discuss my background, what I'm doing in Vermont, as well as what I've got planned for the future. I feel like he's interviewing me as much as I am interviewing him. We had plenty of time to talk as the goat were nowhere to be found. Eventually, we spot the herd walking up the hill from a draw at the far end of the property. They see us and trot over to say hello. In a minute we're surrounded by 30 happy does. Some are visibly pregnant, their sides expanding as the kid develops. Several walk over to me so that I might scratch them and pet them. They rub their heads against my hand and nibble on my coat's zipper. These are some very happy and content goats.

(photo: Michael Lee and Carter)

We walked back to the house, surrounded by our caprine entourage. Michael and Carter take me inside to meet Emily. The house is light and airy. Very modern and clean. We move into the kitchen where Emily is preparing tea. Carter is seated at the island. He's given some pens and starts to draw. Emily wants to hear all about my French Laundry meal. I tried to recount the entire meal by memory and didn't to too badly. I forgot to tell her about the cheese course! Ah well. It is hard to keep all nine courses straight in my head. It is apparent that she and Michael have an affinity for fine food. It's nice that they're producing some really fine food, too. I see some homemade pasta drying on a rack on the counter. They eat well around here.

Time to feed the goats! I followed Michael into the barn and talked to him while he took care of chores. Fresh alfalfa for the goats. Cat food for the barn cats. The goats are herded into a side pen in the barn for the evening meal. Michael lets them into the milking parlor, six at a time. He's only milking in the mornings right now, as most of the goats will be dry soon. This evening feeding is a nice way to keep an eye on every goat, as Michael inspects each one while she's eating. When they're all fed, our tour continued into the cheese room.

(photo: Michael in Twig Farm's cheese room)

Twig farm's cheese room is fairly efficient. There's a vat, a sink, a draining table and a large storage rack. No pasteurizer, as he only makes raw milk cheese. This is nice to see, as he makes some incredibly complex, yet approachable goat cheese. (You can find some of his cheese at Cowgirl these days.) I like seeing this size operation, because I think it is pretty close to where I'll be in a year or two or three. He also blends some cow's milk into some of his cheese. Michael gets cow's milk from his neighbor, Diane St. Clair of Animal Farm in Orwell, Vermont. This is the same woman that makes butter for French Laundry. As she only uses the cream, her skim is available for Michael's cheese. Michael explained how he got started, apprenticing at another farm, working with sheep's milk. Most of his technique he's learned by doing in his own cheese room with his own milk. Twig farm has only been licensed since early 2005. Since then, he's been selling as much as he can produce.

(photo: Michael Lee in his cellar)

We went back into the house and went downstairs to see their aging cellars. One end of the basement is devoted to the storage and aging of his cheese. The cellar is filled with ash shelves, covered with natural rind, grey mold covered tomme, a semi-firm mixed milk (cow/goat) wheel, a washed rind, semi-soft wheel, an alpine style cheese, and a goat milk blue. Brine tubs are on the floor and wire racks stand in the center of the floor, filled with more cheese.

We went back upstairs and tasted some of his cheese. The square wheel is opened and he gives me a taste. Yum! I'm pretty tired at this point so complex descriptions don't come easily. It is slightly firm, earthy, herbaceous, as well as toothsome. I enjoyed it very much. He hands me a taste of his blue cheese, too. Smooth and milky, creamy with a mild blue flavor. This is a nice, goat milk blue with a good, sweet finish. He's producing a great array of cheeses. I'm really glad I took the time to drive to Twig Farm and take a peek at what they're doing in West Cornwall.

I got tired and bid them farewell as they prepared supper. I headed back to Burlington and checked into my hotel. Comfort Inn on Dorset Street. It is nice and cllose to campus. I went down the street for supper. Al's French Frys called my name. With a name like that how can I not try it? Yes, the fries are good. Try them. I went to bed, the snow began to fall in earnest.

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